Shell and Virent Energy Systems, Inc., (Virent™) have announced a joint research and development effort to convert plant sugars directly into gasoline and gasoline blend components, via the BioForming™ process, rather than producing ethanol. The process is a simple reactor system operating at relatively low temperatures and pressures and once it is functioning, no additional energy inputs are required. The resulting "biogasoline" could potentially eliminate the need for specialized infrastructure, new engine designs and blending equipment.
The production of gasoline via BioForming™ is a new pathway for the production of liquid fuels and chemicals from biiomass rather than from fossil fuels. Virent has received significant commercial interest and entered into key strategic industrial collaborations, including with Shell for the development of liquid fuels, which will speed the technology’s time to market and enable broad commercial penetration
Virents process is a technology that economically transforms the sugars from biomass into universally usable fuel. The sugars can be sourced from non-food sources like corn stover, switch grass, wheat straw and sugarcane pulp, in addition to conventional biofuel feedstock like wheat, corn and sugarcane. It produces gasoline, diesel, and jet fuels with with twice the net energy yield per acre as traditional ethanol processes and with a small CO2 footprint. Gasoline made via the BioForming™ process will enjoy a 20% to 30% per BTU cost advantage over ethanol.
The resultant biofuels have the same properties as their petroleum based counterparts. They have the same energy content (for example, gasoline has 52 percent more energy per gallon than ethanol). The fuels produced through this process are fully compatible with existing engines, pipelines and fuel pumps. Virent’s products are universally usable, requiring no new infrastructure investment. They are compatible with existing engines, pipelines, and fuel pumps.
“Virent has proven that sugars can be converted into the same hydrocarbon mixtures of today’s gasoline blends. Our products match petroleum gasoline in functionality and performance. Virent’s unique catalytic process uses a variety of biomass-derived feedstocks to generate biogasoline at competitive costs. Our results to date fully justify accelerating commercialization of this technology.
-- Dr. Randy Cortright, Virent CTO, Co-Founder and Executive Vice President
Although the companies released few details on the costs of producing the fuel or when it may be available to consumers, chron.com, the Houston Chronicle web site, quoted Graeme Sweeney, head of Shells biofuels as saying:
"the companies next step would be two years of further testing followed by the possible construction of a 'demonstration conversion plant' — about one quarter of the size of a full scale commercial plant."
"We believe this technology has the potential to be cost competitive. Otherwise we wouldn't be taking this route."
The company claim that because the process uses catalysts, not bugs, it avoids dependence on fragile creatures and biology, resulting in a faster, more robust process that is completely in line with mainstream catalytic petroleum processing. Catalysts have been proven to be the most effective way to produce fuels and petrochemicals and have greater success utilizing cellulosic biomass than fermentation methods. Traditionally, sugars have been fermented into ethanol and distilled. Virents new ‘biogasoline’ molecules have higher energy content than ethanol (or butanol) and deliver better fuel efficiency. They can be blended seamlessly to make conventional gasoline or combined with gasoline containing ethanol. The system’s scalability enables the economical matching of production with available feedstock supplies.
Virent has demonstrated viable yields of biogasoline from glycerol, sorbitol, glucose, corn syrup, and sucrose feedstocks. The current development focus is developing production capabilities for biogasoline, sugar-based biodiesel, hydrogen, and propylene glycol.
Virent, Madison, WI, was founded in 2002 by Dr. Randy Cortright and Dr. Jim Dumesic to commercialize Aqueous Phase Reforming (APR) an innovative technology the two invented and patented while at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Although early research focused on generating hydrogen from sugar, as originally published in the journal Nature in 2002, the technology has since further evolved into the BioForming™ process, which enables the production of renewable liquid fuels, fuel gases, and other chemicals.
Virent has 68 employees located in a state-of-the-art catalytic biorefining development facility in Madison. The APR technology is exclusively licensed from the Wisconsin Alumni Foundation, the patent-licensing arm of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. .
In 2005, Virent contracted with MG&E, a local Wisconsin utility, to build an integrated BioForming reactor and hydrogen/natural gas fueled generator for electricity production. The success of this system, which began operating in December 2005 and can deliver up to 10 kW of power, demonstrated the viability of the process. This sparked the interest of companies such as Cargill and Honda and ultimately led each to invest in the company in 2006.
In May 2007 Shell and Virent announced a five-year joint development agreement to develop further and commercialize Virent's BioForming™ technology platform for hydrogen production. The companies have so far collaborated for one year on the research. The technology has advanced rapidly, exceeding milestones for yield, product composition, and cost. Future efforts will focus on further improving the technology and scaling it up for larger volume commercial production.
In September 2007 – the company announced that it has closed a $21 million second round of venture financing, led by Stark Investments and Venture Investors LLC. Cargill Ventures, the Series A Lead Investor, and Advantage Capital Partners, continued their strong support with full participation in the round. With this new investment, Virent has received grants and venture funding totaling nearly $40 million since its founding in 2002.
In October 2007 Virent received a $2 million Advanced Technology Program (ATP) grant from the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) to develop effective and economical methods to break down non‐food cellulosic biomass The grant specifically funds the development of a catalytic based process that combines carbohydrate hydrolysis with depolymerization to effectively break down cellulosic biomass into sugars and other chemical intermediates that can then be easily converted into biofuels. Over its history, Virent has been awarded over $11 million in federal and state grants.
Previous posts in TEB reported that Dumesic and his research team have developed a two-stage process for turning biomass-derived sugar, fructose, into 2,5-dimethylfuran (DMF), a liquid transportation fuel with 40 percent greater energy density than ethanol, similar to that of gasoline. A few more details are given on this process which may give hints as to how the "biogasoline" process works.
If this process can be economically developed, we will have a biofuel that when combined with plug-in hybrids and the fuel use eliminated by electric vehicles, could supplement or someday replace our gasoline, diesel and perhaps jet fuel requirements and give us independence from geopolitical unstable countries. If through adoption of these biofuels worldwide demand for liquid fuels could be reduced, the prices for these fuels could possibly be reduced or at least stabalized.